A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities for Engagement (Introduction)

A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities for Engagement (Introduction)

by Jeffrey Reeves and Joanne Wallis
October 28, 2020

This is the introduction to the roundtable “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities for Engagement.”

In 2007, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe proposed that if Japan and India were to come together, it would coalesce a “broader Asia” that would be “open and transparent” and “allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.”[1] Abe’s speech marked the emergence on the international stage of the idea that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are linked in a strategic arc, and that this region should be free and open. Abe’s commitment to this idea solidified during his second term in office (2012–14), culminating in his launching of Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy in 2016, with the goals of “freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous.”[2]

Since then, Japan has successfully promoted its FOIP concept. In 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump explicitly adopted FOIP language, stating that “I’ve had the honor of sharing our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific—a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side, and thrive in freedom and in peace.”[3] However, while the FOIP concept exists as a strategy in Japan and the United States, in India and Australia it is primarily treated as a normative framing, and in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an “outlook.”[4] Pacific Island states have been the most wary about adopting a FOIP concept.[5] Like the Southeast Asian states, they are concerned that the Indo-Pacific framing implies that smaller states will inevitably have to make a strategic choice “between a ‘China alternative’ and our traditional partners.”[6]

That the definition of the FOIP concept remains open to interpretation is a potential strength because states can adapt the concept to their circumstances. But this is also its greatest weakness because this elasticity means that the concept may be incapable of shaping a future regional security order. Moreover, that certain versions—particularly the one articulated by the Trump administration—clearly define China as an adversary makes the concept unattractive to many smaller, risk-averse states worried about exacerbating China’s strategic vulnerability.

With the FOIP concept still under development, in January 2020 the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada hosted a conference in Vancouver at which speakers from Australia, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States outlined their respective views on the Indo-Pacific idea. This roundtable is a joint project of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Both institutions featured participants at the conference and belong to the Asia Policy consortium. This roundtable features a selection of essays on the FOIP idea, some presented at the conference and some drafted in retrospect.

These essays, and other contributions at the conference, reveal that while interpretations of the FOIP concept differ, each country shares an understanding that interconnectivity—whether economic, security, political, or people-to-people—is key. Therefore, in its most fundamental form, the FOIP concept is about realizing a two-ocean, two-continent strategy to build an inclusive mega-region. As the concept can also be read as code for containing China, particularly given that the main proponents of the concept—Australia, Japan, India, and the United States—have recently revived the Quad format, this suggests that it is important to emphasize interconnectivity and inclusivity as key principles of any aspirational FOIP vision in order to advance economic development and promote interregional engagement and stability.

Participants at the conference acknowledged questions over what role “values” should play in the concept, given that this may challenge its attractiveness as a region-wide organizing principle. For example, while the Quad members have emphasized the importance of democracy, not all Asian states see shared democratic values or a democratically aligned rules-based order as necessary preconditions for state relations. There is also no consensus on what constitutes a rules-based order in Asia, as well as on which states established the existing order, which states are outside of it, and whether this order was a result of consultation and negotiation or imposed by dominant powers at a time when other powers (China, in particular) were too weak to resist.

Conference participants further discussed whether the FOIP concept could be operationalized as an organizing principle for a regional economic order. The tremendous economic diversity—in terms of size, development levels, per capita GDP, standards of living, and approaches to government and market relations—in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East challenges interregional economic integration. It is also unclear whether the United States and China would agree to be included in FOIP-directed economic integration, further complicating the concept’s ability to drive such a process. There are questions about whether the concept is necessary for Asian economic interconnectivity, which has deepened in recent years even absent any FOIP construct or institution. The existing regional economic architecture already includes the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Belt and Road Initiative, and numerous free trade deals, and many countries are negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Participants also considered whether the FOIP concept could help coalesce a regional security order. Diversity is again a challenge, with the security interests and situations of regional states varying according to, among other things, their size and geographic location. Many security concerns also arise from tensions between regional states, such as issues around sovereignty in the South China Sea and, broadly, the preservation of open sea lines of communication. Participants concluded that cooperation on comparatively less controversial and more universally relevant nontraditional security issues, such as piracy, terrorism, environmental security, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, could be a valuable first step toward consolidating security cooperation among states under the FOIP concept.

This Asia Policy roundtable opens with Joanne Wallis outlining Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision, which is predicated on the country’s geographic identity as a Pacific and Indian Ocean power. Compounding this vision is what Wallis describes as Australia’s concern over geostrategic competition within the Indo-Pacific’s maritime domain, particularly with respect to U.S.-China competition. She further links Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision to the country’s role as an Asian middle power, arguing that the concept gives Canberra more room for strategic maneuver and ultimately strengthens Asia’s rules-based order.

In his essay on India’s approach to a free and open Indo-Pacific, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy describes New Delhi’s contemporary understanding of the geographic region in line with its key foreign and economic policies. He notes, for instance, how the Modi government is using the Indo-Pacific to realize its Act East Policy, to advance a vision of common economic development in South Asia, and to ensure strategic alignment with the United States, in particular. Like Wallis, Ambassador Chinoy points to India’s geographic location astride the Indian and Pacific Oceans as having a specific determining quality for the country’s vision.

Writing on Indonesia, Natalie Sambhi traces the genesis of its Indo-Pacific vision back to the country’s historical view of its strategic place within the Asian maritime realm and identifies the contemporary domestic drivers and national security priorities. Sambhi highlights that Indonesia’s view of the Indo-Pacific is unique among the proponent states in that Jakarta prioritizes inclusivity, nonalignment, and ASEAN centrality in its version if the concept. She further points to the Joko Widodo administration’s concern over the U.S.-led FOIP vision, arguing that Indonesia is intent on not participating in any attempt to isolate China in the Asian region.

The roundtable concludes with a dissenting view about the free and open Indo-Pacific’s strategic value for Canada from Jeffrey Reeves. In contrast to those advocating for FOIP alignment or an Indo-Pacific redesign, Reeves argues that Canada’s adoption of an Indo-Pacific geographic construct over an Asia-Pacific one would ultimately limit the country’s strategic options. He specifically points to the Trump administration’s conceptual capture of the FOIP concept to focus almost exclusively on containing China as a source of strategic “baggage” that Canada would do better to avoid.

Collectively, the four essays in the roundtable provide important insight into regional perspectives—both positive and negative—on the Indo-Pacific’s geostrategic relevance and the FOIP concept’s strategic scope. This is not to suggest, however, that the essays represent or agree with a FOIP “consensus”—indeed, far from it. As with any new concept, disagreement exists as to the concept’s effect on Asia’s regional order, underlying strategic principles, and scope for organizing state relations. This roundtable, together with the January 2020 conference, is an attempt to identify such differences of opinion, as well as areas of common agreement, to engage more critically with the FOIP concept so as to map its operational and conceptual boundaries. As with all nascent ideas—which the free and open Indo-Pacific remains—the place of this concept in the Indo-Pacific order will become clearer with time. It is our hope that these essays make a modest contribution to such collective knowledge.

Jeffrey Reeves is Vice-President of Research for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (Canada). He previously was the Director of Asian Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Joanne Wallis is Professor of International Security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide (Australia). She was formerly with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.


[1] Shinzo Abe “Confluence of the Two Seas” (speech at the Parliament of the Republic of India, New
Delhi, August 22, 2007), https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html.

[2] Shinzo Abe (address at the Opening Session of the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African
Development, Nairobi, August 27, 2016), https://www.mofa.go.jp/afr/af2/page4e_000496.html.

[3] Donald J. Trump (remarks at the APEC CEO Summit, Washington, D.C., November 10, 2017),

[4] ASEAN, “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” June 23, 2019, https://asean.org/asean-outlookindo-pacific.

[5] Meg Taylor (keynote address to the 2018 State of the Pacific Conference, Canberra, September 8,
2018), https://www.forumsec.org/keynote-address-by-secretary-general-meg-taylor-to-the-2018-

[6] Meg Taylor, “The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands” (keynote
address at the Pacific Islands Forum, Port Vila, February 8, 2019) u https://www.forumsec.org/

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